Residents in rural California counties with low vaccination rates died at significantly higher rates of COVID-19 during the summer surge in delta coronavirus variant than those in better vaccinated areas like the San Francisco Bay Area and Southern California, according to a data analysis by the Los Angeles Times found.
The results show how vaccinations are resetting the recent history of the pandemic and illustrate what health officials have long claimed: that a high level of vaccination will better arm a region against the worst of the coronavirus.
Many health officials have advocated ordering the gunshots as a condition of employment and, in some cases, recovery, in hopes of staving off a possible new spike over winter.
Los Angeles County has officially adopted vaccine verification requirements in select indoor businesses including bars, wineries, nightclubs, and lounges. And the city of Los Angeles is rolling out even broader rules, due to go into effect on November 8th, that would extend the requirement to indoor restaurants, gyms, shopping malls, movie theaters, hair and nail salons, and many other venues.
These targeted vaccination requirements “offer our best hope of returning to low transmission more quickly and, hopefully, ending cycles of surges,” said Barbara Ferrer, LA County’s director of public health.
In contrast to the fall-winter wave that devastated the denser urban communities of Southern California, the most recent delta wave pounded the state’s rural and agricultural areas – infecting, hospitalizing and killing some counties on an unprecedented scale.
Rural Northern California and the San Joaquin Valley have by far the lowest vaccination rates: only 44% of residents of all ages are fully vaccinated in the north and 45% in the California Agricultural Center.
Both regions have also reported some of the highest COVID-19 death rates in the state for the summer. For every 100,000 people living in each region, 33 died of COVID-19 in rural Northern California this summer, as did 22 in the San Joaquin Valley.
In contrast, 13 in Southern California and 7 in the Bay Area died for every 100,000 people living in each of those areas this summer. These two regions have the highest vaccination rates in the state: 58% of Southern California residents are fully vaccinated, compared to 70% in the Bay Area.
The analysis adds further weight to what health officials have been saying for months: COVID-19 vaccinations are highly effective, and the spread of misinformation about vaccine ineffectiveness is not based on reality.
“The takeaway message for everyone is that vaccines save lives. Get vaccinated and save your life and that of your loved ones, ”said Dr. Robert Kim-Farley, a UCLA epidemiologist and infectious disease expert.
In early September, state health officials calculated that unvaccinated Californians were 17 times more likely to die from COVID-19 than their fully vaccinated counterparts.
The Bay Area’s vaccination rates are among the highest in the country, and even some risk-averse doctors who abruptly stopped eating out when the delta surge worsened are now optimistic.
In San Francisco, 75% of residents of all ages are now fully vaccinated – well above the comparable rate in all of California, which is 60%. And at UC San Francisco’s hospitals, the rate at which asymptomatic people test positive for the coronavirus is astonishingly low – 0.4%.
“I can eat inside SF now. Everyone has to find their comfort zone. … I’ve reached mine, “tweeted Dr. Robert Wachter, chairman of the medical school at UC San Francisco.
San Francisco is poised to lift mask requirements for indoor spaces like indoor gyms and offices next week, as long as everyone inside is vaccinated.
Santa Clara County reported one of the lowest summer COVID-19 death rates in California – 5 deaths per 100,000 population. It’s quite an accomplishment for Silicon Valley, which recorded the nation’s first COVID-19 death. Both San Francisco and Santa Clara Counties have eliminated significant differences in vaccination rates by race and ethnicity, a major factor in reducing coronavirus transmission.
“Our public has broadly embraced the COVID prevention measures we talked about and asked everyone to do so. And because of that, our rates are pretty low, ”said Dr. Sara Cody, Santa Clara County’s public health director and health officer. “We had a fourth climb, but that was relatively blunted compared to the experience in other parts of the state and country.”
In contrast, the counties with the highest death rates have miserable vaccination rates. In California’s counties with the nine worst COVID-19 death rates, fewer than half of residents have been vaccinated. The county with the worst death rate is Del Norte County, a sparsely populated county of fewer than 30,000 people in the northwest corner of the state, with 91 deaths for every 100,000 people. Only 39% of the residents there are fully vaccinated.
The local medical society has asked residents to get vaccinated. “We will of course continue to work. But we are tired. We are fed up with the suffering, pain and death that vaccination can avoid, ”it says. “You have entrusted us with every other aspect of your health. Please trust us with that. “
Badly affected hospitals were so tense that the National Guard was activated to send aid to places like Bakersfield and Redding. Fresno County was forced to move some seriously ill patients more than 100 miles away because its hospitals were so full.
Only 50% of Fresno County’s residents are fully vaccinated. “It is only tragic to see that there are still patients who simply did not have a chance to get vaccinated, did not receive the correct information and, unfortunately, were misinformed,” said Dr. Rais Vohra, the Fresno county interim health officer, said during a briefing.
Across the San Joaquin Valley, hospitals reported that for almost all of last month, less than 10% of their cumulative occupied ICU beds were available to adults.
“We know that the number of deaths always goes up, even when the other numbers go down, and that is exactly what we expect for this increase,” Vohra said last week. “I think we will unfortunately continue to increase the death toll in the course of October.”
The southern California delta surge was nowhere near as bad as the winter surge, but vaccination rates still need to be improved significantly. Los Angeles county has reported that only 60% of its residents are fully vaccinated – the equivalent of the state rate in California, and the summer death rate of 15 deaths per 100,000 people was close to the state rate of 14.
An improvement in pandemic trends could change “if we do not maintain the momentum of increasing vaccination rates,” said Dr. Christina Ghaly, LA County Health Director.
Orange County’s population is 62% fully vaccinated and the county had one of the lower death rates in the state at 9 per 100,000 people. Of the people who died in August, 94% were unvaccinated, said Dr. Regina Chinsio-Kwong, a deputy county health officer.
“We could have lost more people to Delta if we didn’t have the vaccination rate we had, and we’re seeing this in other states,” she said during a recent briefing.
Officials in the LA and Orange counties said vaccination rates still need to improve. Chinsio-Kwong encouraged parents and carers of children who are too young to be vaccinated to be extra careful until their children can get their vaccination.
To enjoy the holidays as usual, “we have to be careful this October,” said Chinsio-Kwong. “So that means you might want to relocate your outdoor activity so you have better ventilation. Yes, that means maybe I should wear a mask when I’m inside, especially when I’m in a restaurant. I think it’s very good advice. “
The Times staffer, Emily Alpert Reyes, contributed to this report.